Sounding like a huge swarm of angry bees or maybe a hedge trimmer on steroids, a small quadcopter lifts up off of a landing pad in front of the main hospital building on the WakeMed campus in Raleigh, N.C. Underneath it is a metal box — smaller than a shoebox — with vials of blood samples inside of it that are now heading across the campus to the lab for analysis, guided by a drone operator on the ground.
It's not a long trip.
"This facility happens to be across a very busy road from our main campus hospital," says Stuart Ginn, an ENT surgeon and medical director of innovations at WakeMed. But when taken by carrier on foot or by car, he says "the logistics of getting those samples across often resulted in about a 45-minute time of delivery."
But now, with the drone?
"We've seen that drop to about 10 minutes, and that's really door to door," Ginn says. "The actual flight time one way is about three minutes because it's not a long route."
Saving that much time can, in some instances, save lives, and at the very least it should reduce delays in providing medical treatment.
Now, WakeMed's partner in this endeavor, UPS subsidiary UPS Flight Forward, has won federal approval to expand its drone delivery operations, allowing the company to use multiple aircraft in multiple locations to make revenue-generating deliveries over longer distances.
Ginn says that will allow WakeMed to bypass the traffic congestion of area roads and fly drones with tissue and blood samples or urgent medical supplies quickly between its other health care facilities in the region.
"We anticipate being able to connect those hospitals together and those health-plexes back to the hospitals and back to where we're sitting now, back to the main campus hospital," Ginn says.
In Raleigh, UPS is using Matternet drones capable of carrying 5-pound loads over 12.5 miles.
Drones with longer ranges could eventually be a game-changer in helping meet health care needs in underserved communities and in rural areas, where doctors and patients could be miles apart from medications and supplies.
"What we are doing is we are opening up a third dimension that wasn't there," says Bala Ganesh, vice president of the advanced technology group at UPS. "We were thinking in 2D and now we're starting to think in the third dimension. And no pun intended, the sky's the limit in what we can build out going forward with this third dimension."
Ganesh says GPS and other technologies allow for these unmanned drones to fly to precise locations, and collision-avoidance technology will help prevent the drones from crashing into obstacles such as trees, power lines, buildings or even other drones.
"We are moving forward into a future that does not exist today, so it's an amazing, amazing thing," Ganesh says.
Drones are not quite ready to compete with Santa Claus in delivering toys to your home by Christmas morning, but the dream of transporting goods from the store to your door is closer to reality.
Walgreens is testing on-demand delivery by drone on a limited scale in Christiansburg, Va., partnering with FedEx and Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google's parent company.
A lot of others in the online retail industry are working feverishly to develop drone delivery systems that can win federal approval. Most prominent among them is Amazon; CEO Jeff Bezos said several years ago that drones would be delivering Amazon orders to our homes in 30 minutes via drone by 2019. That hasn't happened yet, in large part because the regulatory framework does not exist yet.
Drones are already being used commercially for photography and film, inspecting crops, buildings, bridges and railroads. And first responders use them in search and rescue operations and to survey damage from fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters.
But those drones operate on short leashes. The new FAA "part 135" certification awarded to UPS will eventually allow for drone deliveries going beyond the operator's line of sight, flying the drones at night and over populated areas.
"This is a huge leap forward," says Jacob Reed, director of the unmanned aircraft systems degree program at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., which is about 35 miles southwest of Chicago.
"Everyone understands the value in this and everybody understands the demand that consumers have with wanting their goods and wanting their goods faster," Reed adds. "We've seen retailers cut it down to two days and one day, but imagine starting to get something in hours instead of days."
Drones can meet that demand much more easily than delivery vans and trucks, but Reed says there's still a lot of uncertainty in the industry.
"The biggest thing is safety," he says. "It's not only the safety of everybody on the ground that the aircraft may be flying over, but it's the safety of other manned aircraft that are in the skies."
There are also privacy concerns about drones flying over homes and businesses, concerns about the noise bigger drones generate, and security concerns over drones possibly being hacked and steered off course.
And then there's just plain old human curiosity. Reed imagines a drone delivering to his house on a warm summer day "and this big rotor-craft comes and lands maybe on my driveway or my doorstep to drop off a package. Well, now there are kids in the area that are off of school and they come by to check out this cool aircraft that just came to deliver something."
Will the drone know kids are close by so it doesn't restart the rotors that could injure them? If so, how long might it sit and wait and delay other deliveries? And what if someone damages the drone while it's on the ground?
The FAA and drone developers and manufacturers are working on addressing those concerns. In fact, the FAA's drone advisory committee is meeting in Washington this month for just the second time this year.
Nonetheless, it is increasingly likely that drone deliveries to our homes will soon take off.